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Harry Smith

September 12, 2009 by garry

Harry Smith (1923-1991) was primarily an artist, filmmaker, musicologist, archivist and record collector who was best known for compiling the Anthology of American Folk Music for Smithsonian Folkways in 1952, which was a huge influence on the folk music revival of the '60s. Harry also gained fame in underground film circles (and squares) for creating a series of colorful, abstract, animated shorts starting back in the 1940s.

Available on a release called Early Abstractions, they span from 1941 to 1957, and predated another major '60s explosion: psychedelia. Originally paired with the jazz of Dizzy Gillespie, and later, pop like the Beatles, these films completely cry out for the viewer to silence the sparse, dank, improvised Teiji Ito Shaman soundtrack on this volume and crank up whatever music he or she thinks will most appropriately accompany the visuals. I imagine Merzbow would mesh quite well with the first three films. No. 1 is all gritty, organic, watercolor-like, and fast-paced; full of ever-changing, amorphous shapes that unfurl themselves across ultra-detailed backgrounds. Likewise, circles dance across myriad corroded backdrops in No. 2, while diamonds and squares take up residence in No. 3.

Teiji Ito's dimly-lit soundtrack really synchs up with the visuals in No. 4, which is imbued with a much slower, live-action feel. It all starts out as the lens jumps around on a squirrelly painting for a moment, followed by white circles and squares that flit about on a black background. At this point, the stark imagery and sprightly flute music mesh together perfectly.

No. 5 is a color sequel to No. 4 with yet more music-matching magic. Lots of circles, squares and triangles with grillwork morph over clean yet complex layers and dominate No. 7, while No. 10 makes a clean break from all the others. It features cut-out clip art people, animals, and everyday objects that romp around in a surreal Buddhist reverie. Maybe the aforementioned Beatles would work best with that. Overall, Harry Smith's Early Abstractions comes highly recommended for any and all film students, psych heads and flat-out fans of color and motion.

Timeframe: Pre-Altamont.

Public Impact: Although Harry Smith is certainly not a household name, his strong influence in the fields of musicology, filmmaking, painting, anthropology and collecting (paper airplanes, Seminole textiles, string figures and Ukranian Easter eggs) still reverberates today.

More: Official, Perfect Sound Forever, Wikipedia, YouTube





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